This morning, the Supreme Court held that an Arizona state law requiring additional proof of United States citizenship in order to register to vote was unconstitutional. Justice Scalia, who descends from Mordor upon the back of his great Nazgûl each Monday and Thursday for the Court’s decision days, wrote the majority opinion. The Court ruled that the federal National Voter Registration Act, which already requires registrants to affirm their U.S. citizenship status, preempted Arizona’s law. And with that, Scalia’s Nazgûl reared its mighty head, screeching wildly, and the two took to the skies.
Arizona state officials had argued that the law was valid, and necessary to prevent voter fraud. (Sometimes people say they’re concerned about voter fraud but what they’re really concerned about is non-white people voting.) Arizona also didn’t like the idea of relying on the “honor system” imposed by the federal voter registration form. By the way, the federal voter registration form is a legal document and if someone were to say, lie on the form, that person would be prosecuted by the federal government for perjury. Yes. “Honor system.”
Can we just review how insane it was for Arizona to pass this stupid law in the first place? Did Arizona miss that day of high school social studies where Mr. Brill droned on for what felt like days about how federal law always trumps a conflicting state law? That was kind of an important day, Arizona! It’s totally gonna be on the final, man! Maybe this is what happens when you ask the town insurance adjuster to work as a state legislator in his free time—most legislators work only part-time and get paid dick to sit around the state capitol building all day. (Seriously, y'all, Nebraska state legislators make $12,000 a year. I made more than that as the Women's Team Leader at Urban Outfitters!) Even so, I find it highly unlikely that state legislators/frozen yogurt franchisees are that unaware of the basic tenets of the United States Constitution and its implications on state law. When a state passes a statute that is clearly preempted by federal law, what’s really going on?
Arizona is not the only state with a law on the books that requires additional proof of citizenship in order to vote—Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, and Tennessee all have similar laws. But why stop there? Five states have also passed laws that mirror Arizona’s “show me your papers” bill. (You know, the one that requires law enforcement to verify the immigration status of a detainee when there’s reasonable suspicion that he’s in the country illegally? That one?) And Alabama, not content to merely harass Hispanic adults, passed a bill in 2011 requiring school districts to determine the citizenship of children before they could enroll in school. All this despite the fact that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over immigration laws in this country. In other words, states have no authority to pass laws like this, but they keep doing it anyway.
So, either every single state legislator is a complete dummy with no functional understanding of federalism, or these laws aren’t really about public safety or “err jerrbs” or protecting the “integrity” of election processes at all. I’m thinking it’s the latter. These laws are about creating a hostile environment for immigrants in the hopes they’ll get the fuck out. And it works! After Alabama passed its immigration bill, thousands of people just disappeared overnight. Business owners that catered to Mexican and Latin American customers lost a substantial percentage of their patrons as a result of the law. Many students were too scared to return to school.
Even though these immigration laws are almost certainly unconstitutional, an even though Arizona's voting law is definitely unconstitutional, states have no real incentive to stop passing them. It takes years for opponents of these laws to bring legal challenges and for those claims to work their way through the court system. For example, the Arizona law that was struck down by the Supreme Court this morning was passed by voter initiative in 2004. Most immigrants don’t want to risk waiting around for courts to figure this stuff out, so they leave.
Arizona’s voting statute, although not explicitly an anti-immigration law, still contributes to an atmosphere of suspicion rooted in xenophobia that leaves immigrants politically powerless and adrift in uncertainty. To the extent that today’s Supreme Court decision alleviates some of that resentment, it’s a wonderful step in the right direction. But until the federal government nuts up and passes comprehensive immigration reform, you can expect more of the same state-level anti-immigration bullshit.
Meagan Hatcher-Mays is a recent graduate of Washington University Law School in Saint Louis. She does a significant amount of yelling on Twitter.